On Sunday, April 21, a police officer in Fairfax, Virginia was making a right turn on red when he hit a 55-year-old man on a bicycle. According to the Washington Post, the police then charged the victim—yes, the victim—with “failing to pay full time and attention, as part of Fairfax’s renewed efforts to reduce pedestrian fatalities.”
This makes about as much sense as renewing your effort to get the cat to stop peeing in your shoes by punishing the dog.
The ostensible reason police charged the cyclist was that the cyclist was “wrong.” Specifically, as video of the incident shows, the cyclist entered the crosswalk with the traffic signal, but against the pedestrian signal. Meanwhile, the driver was “right,” in that he was making a legal right turn on red, when “all of a sudden” the cyclist appeared. (For fun, let’s just pretend the fact that the driver was a cop had nothing to do with it.)
It’s infuriating that this happened, but it’s not surprising. Here’s how things work out there: laws that exist for driver convenience put cyclists in danger. Meanwhile, the things we have to do to stay alive because of that convenience are often illegal. It’s a complete right-wrong inversion.
In a way, you’ve got to admire what a great job we’ve done engineering our roadways and our laws to instantly reject anybody who’s not in a car. Consider our “lawbreaking victim” on the bike. He’s riding on a mixed-use path along a stretch of road with three lanes of car traffic in either direction and flanked by a sprawling retail hellscape of big-box store parking lots. It’s so dangerous where he’s riding that, the day before he was charged, the police chief and other officials had held a police conference blocks away from where he got hit announcing an initiative to reduce pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in the area.
Now he comes to an intersection controlled by two signals: one’s for pedestrians, the other’s for drivers. Which does he follow? After all, he’s neither. It’s a scenario every cyclist is familiar with: having to choose the lesser of two evils in a hostile environment. So he chooses the green traffic light and BLAMMO!
First he’s hit by a cop, and then he’s hit again with the charges.
Now let’s consider the driver. He’s making a right turn on red. While legal in most of the U.S. (New York City excluded, of course), the right turn on red is a stunningly egregious loophole. Yield signs, stop signs, speed limits, painted lines on the street...drivers are supposed to obey them, but in practice they’re more or less discretionary. As such, red lights are our only meaningful defense against drivers, because they’re the only traffic control device that tells them exactly when to stop and go with no ambiguity, and it’s the only one they take semi-seriously. So to de-fang it by saying, Well, okay, you don’t have to wait for the green if you’re going right is to remove our last line of defense.
So why do we even allow right on red in the first place? Ironically, it became pervasive in the 1970s as a gas-saving measure. However, in practice, it’s the people who don’t use any gas at all who have to pay for it, because pedestrians and cyclists are disproportionately injured in right-on-red collisions. It also virtually guarantees the roads remain the exclusive domain of the gas-guzzling set by discouraging people from getting around any other way. You can never feel completely safe in a right-turn-on-red environment. After all, if people could bypass the lock on your bathroom door simply by turning the knob to the right, you’d probably find another place to take a dump, too.
And of course every cyclist knows drivers making right turns on red aren’t looking for people on bikes. Instead they poke their bumpers out into the intersection like gophers checking to see if the coast is clear, and as long as there’s not another driver coming along to tear their bumpers off, they figure it’s safe to proceed. In fact, the very act of making a right on red requires them to violate cyclist and pedestrian right of way, because they’ve got to be well past the crosswalk and into the intersection before they can even get a view of oncoming traffic. The upshot is that before they’ve even started turning, they’ve already cut you off.
It’s not just right turns on red lights, either. Our entire approach to traffic safety is completely upside down and ass-backwards. A Jeep Grand Cherokee comes with a “10-inch subwoofer and 19 high-performance speakers strategically placed inside the cabin to provide an immersive, surround-sound experience for all occupants,” and yet in many municipalities you’ll get a ticket for riding your bike while listening to a podcast with earbuds. (And no, listening to earbuds while riding your bike isn’t particularly dangerous.)
We’re told we need powerful cars so we can “merge safely” into traffic, but there are still plenty of cities that won’t even allow electric scooters and e-bikes. And PSAs constantly tell us to “be seen,” as though we’re inherently invisible. A motorist is supposed to look before making a right on red, though this is effectively meaningless when it’s okay to drive right into someone because they somehow appeared “all of a sudden.”
The fact that, as a cyclist or pedestrian, you’re effectively guilty because a shitty driver failed to acknowledge the immutable fact of your existence in the physical plane is the ultimate manifestation of just how fucked up this whole situation is.
Traffic laws should protect the vulnerable from the dangerous and not the other way around, and our current laws are completely at odds with physics and the very nature of cycling. The “Idaho Stop” for cyclists should be legal everywhere; right-on-red for motorists should be legal nowhere. Law enforcement and the media treat cyclists like unruly housepets, but if we seem to be trashing the house it’s only because we need some more goddamn pet doors. The whole “same rights and responsibilities” thing is a load of crap, and the few remaining vehicular cyclists who espouse it are the advocacy equivalent of those weird cats who use the toilet.
Charging a cyclist for breaking the law in an environment that was basically designed to force him to do so is considered justice served. Let’s call it what it actually is: Abuse.